That wise Southern philosopher, Jeff Foxworthy, suggested one’s origins affect how one talks, works, plays and thinks.
I think he’d agree that being a military serviceman or the spouse or child of a serviceperson can have a dramatic effect on one’s culinary tastes.
I grew up in the Marine Corps, so when I answer questions about the source of my accent and eating habits, I name military bases. Then, I’ll explain that my parents were from Thomas County, Ga.
“Oh,” they say.
Some folks then want to know why I, the product of Georgia parents, have such a strong preference for New York-style pizza or pastrami sandwiches from an authentic Jewish deli.
My taste buds developed as a Marine Corps brat, born at Parris Island, S.C. and reared near Albany Marine Base in Georgia, but mostly Camp Lejeune, N.C. I even spent six months in Morocco in West Africa when my daddy was assigned there as an embassy guard.
Many of my daddy’s Marine buddies were from New York and New Jersey. Most were Italian-Americans, though at least one was Jewish. Joe Petri, who became my hunting buddy when I got older, decided to open his own pizzeria when he retired from the Corps. I still can smell the aroma of his pizza dough and taste that gigantic slice of pie dripping with cheese and sauce, smothered with pepperoni, Italian sausage, mushrooms and green peppers.
For years, I thought these were required toppings for a pizza. Still do.
I was awestruck with Mr. Petri’s New York-style pizza. It was not something I’d have expected from him. I mean, I knew him as a guy who told outrageous hunting stories (lies) and wore the finest hunting outfits you could buy from an L.L. Bean catalog, but he couldn’t hit the side of a barn.
For that matter, he couldn’t hit my hunting hat when I threw it in the air for him to blast away at with his beautiful Benelli shotgun. He thought the 12-year-old boy taunting him couldn’t hit anything, either. He tossed his camouflaged, alpine-style hunting hat high in the air and watched me follow it in the sights of my single-barrel 20-guage. As soon as his hat hit the ground, I blew it away. I learned he didn’t have a sense of humor, either.
When it came to pizza, though, Mr. Petri knew what he was doing. Now, the taste of his recipe has become the standard to which I hold all pizza.
In 1967, right outside the gate to the Tarawa Terrance base housing was a Jewish deli. Daddy took me there once and told me I could order a sandwich. I looked at the menu on the wall, and then the smaller menu on the counter. Because I couldn’t find a ham sandwich, I was about to ask the waitress when Daddy asked me about my “problem.” I always had problems as he put it, always asking too many questions.
When I told him I wanted a ham sandwich, he reminded me I was in a Jewish deli.
“Oh,” I said, and then ordered the corned-beef sandwich on his recommendation. Wow! I later discovered pastrami at that deli, as well as some great chicken and matzo-ball soup. By the time I was old enough to drive myself there, that deli had closed. I didn’t find another authentic Jewish deli until I went in the Army, which also made lasting impressions on my taste buds.
My wife and I were ruined for years after coming home from Italy. After we found out what real Italian food was supposed to taste like, it was hard to find real (Northern) Italian pasta here in the United States. Through the Army, I discovered what real Mexican flavor was supposed to be, thanks to a training exercise at Fort Bliss, Texas. While training in Scotland, I understood why the British like their fish and chips so much.
The Army exposed me to real German and oriental cuisine and taught me to at least try things that allowed me to expand my culinary experiences. Not all of it was good, but most of it was great.
Email Murray at email@example.com.